Saturday, October 17, 2009

Scruton mania [UPDATED]

Roger Scruton is without a doubt the greatest living philosopher of conservatism. Apart from political philosophy and current affairs, he has also written important works on ethics, culture, religion, the history of philosophy, and, above all, aesthetics. In addition, he has written several novels, and a couple of operas. To give you a sense of how prolific he is, Scruton’s works take up slightly more than an entire three-foot shelf in my library – and even then I’m missing a volume or two. Nor does that include his many newspaper and magazine pieces. And absolutely everything he writes is worth reading, even when one disagrees with it. (He is a bit more reactionary than I am vis-à-vis contemporary popular culture – though I agree with him that most of it is pernicious trash, and one sometimes suspects that his über-snobbery is meant to be provocative. And he is, for my money, not reactionary enough vis-à-vis religion and modern philosophy, including modern political philosophy. Too little metaphysics, too much Kant. Which, of course, means any Kant…)

If contemporary academic moral and political philosophy were something more than a clubby chat society for people with broadly left-liberal assumptions and sensibilities, Scruton would be as widely read and assigned as Rawls, Nozick, Gauthier, Cohen, Thomson, Parfit, and the rest of the usual suspects. But it isn’t, so he’s not.

Anyway. This year has seen not only two new works from Scruton – Beauty and Understanding Music – but also two important works about Scruton from Mark Dooley: his study of Scruton’s work, Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach, which appeared this summer; and his edited volume The Roger Scruton Reader, which comes out next month. These are long overdue, and we are in Dooley’s debt. Perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a Scruton boom – sculptor Alexander Stoddart is selling a bust of Scruton, which is available to adorn your private study in either a bronze, marble, or plaster version.

In any event, The Roger Scruton Reader promises to make Scruton’s writings more easily available, and will surely be widely assigned by liberal professors of ethics and of political philosophy to their students, so that they might at long last get an idea of what the best representatives of the other side are saying.

Or maybe not.

UPDATE: My esteemed What’s Wrong with the World co-blogger Lydia McGrew has reminded me of something about which I had completely forgotten: that Scruton, while he opposes creating a legal right to assisted suicide, has taken the view that there are cases where a doctor who intentionally hastens a terminal patient’s death (e.g. via an overdose of morphine) should not be prosecuted and – Scruton seems to think – has even done something admirable. (See chapter 4 of his book A Political Philosophy.) Says Lydia: “I do think that pro-life, contemporary, Christian conservative writers should moderate their raptures about Scruton somewhat in light of such views.” And she is absolutely right. Such views are – in my judgment no less than Lydia’s – gravely immoral, and I regret having overlooked this unhappy side of Scruton’s work.


  1. I really love how Scruton, in his essay, described the revolutionary spirit as that "which searches the world for things to hate". I think that's what people don't understand about liberalism. Liberalism isn't just a bundle of positions on various issues. It's the whole fervour for knocking things down, for rippping things asunder. His book "The Meaning of Conservatism" is good, too. But I think the problem with the Scruton and Santayana type of conservative is that they don't believe in anything. The institutions and traditions and cultures they celebrate were created by people who did believe. Nostalgia isn't enough to build a philosophy. Scruton says that simply preserving what can be preserved for as long as possible is motivation enough. For him, maybe, but most of us need more hope than that.

  2. I meant to say, in his essay "Why I Became a Conservative".

  3. Where should one start in reading Scruton?

  4. Maolsheachlann,

    Right on both counts. Liberalism is, after all, about liberty or freedom. But freedom from what? Originally, from the power of the Church, but after that, from Christian morality itself, and then -- now -- from as many constraints on the individual will as possible. It is an essentially negative, and ultimately nihilistic, vision.

    But as you say, it is not enough to point this out. One must show, not only that this view of the world is nasty, but that it is grounded in metaphysical error.


    Scruton's anthology Philosopher on Dover Beach: Essays gives a pretty good overview of his views on a wide variety of issues. (Not to be confused with Dooley's book about Scruton, which uses Scruton's title here as its subtitle.) Scruton's two short books An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy and An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture are also a good way to familiarize yourself with the main themes of his work.

  5. I'm also a great admirer of Scruton's work and along with Anscombe and MacIntyre, he's been among the greatest influences on my thought.

    But in the spirit of Maolsheachlann's comment, it's also worth pointing out that Scruton's "as if" nostalgia isn't just a shortcoming, but can be a positive distortion of the quality of his philosophical work. For example, in his book Modern Philosophy he presents a ridiculous straw-man version of the cosmological argument. Also, in Sexual Desire he caricatures and dismisses Anscombe's "Catholic" argument against contraception without making any real attempt to grapple with it.

  6. Scruton came close to being a Catholic convert some years back, the grapevine tells me, and he teaches at the Institute for Psychological Sciences, a Catholic psychology program.

    Just thought everyone here would like to know.

  7. Scruton's BBC documentary, "Why Beauty Matters" is a masterpiece. A must-see.
    Currently reading: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
    - Mark